Finding the Right Depth is Key to Catching Fish Through the Ice

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Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Press Release

Putting bait or a lure at the depth the fish are, then not moving much, are the keys to catching fish through the ice.

Using some simple devices will also help anglers to know when they have a fish on the end of a line.

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Warm Water Sport Fisheries Coordinator Drew Cushing says fish become lethargic when they are under the ice. “Fish will often stay at a certain water depth all winter long,” Cushing says.  “Also, they are not able to move as fast, to catch their food. Keep those two things in mind, and anglers should find plenty of fish on the end of the line this winter.”

Cushing recommends two techniques that will find and catch fish. The first technique is simple, drop the bait or lure to the depth where fish are expected to be, then let it sit. Keep still. If anglers put their lure or bait near a fish, there is a good chance the fish will take it.

The second technique is called “lift, drop and hold.” To use this technique, drop the bait or lure to the desired depth. Then, using only the wrist, slowly lift the bait or lure about six inches, and then let it flutter back down to the starting point. Once the bait or lure reaches the starting point, let it sit for a few seconds, then lift it again.

Cushing says a mistake many ice anglers make is lifting their bait or lure too fast and lifting it more than six inches. “Remember that fish that are under the ice are not willing to expend a lot of energy to catch their food,” he explained. “Moving the bait or lure too much or too fast, might make the fish decide it’s not worth their effort to catch what’s being offered.”

“The best thing to do, is find the depth where the fish are,” he says. “Then drop the bait or lure right in front of the fish so it is easy for them to bite it.”

The depth at which anglers find fish varies depending on the species they are after. No matter which waterway in Utah an angler is fishing, the following species will be found at these depths:

Yellow Perch – Either right on the bottom of the water, or no more than six inches above the bottom.

Splake – Close to the bottom.

Trout and Kokanee Salmon – Suspended at various depths. The depth at which trout and salmon can be found ranges from just under the ice to as much as 15 feet below. “Once you find the depth at which trout or salmon are suspended in a body of water, there’s a good chance you’ll find them at that same depth throughout the winter,” Cushing stated.

To catch trout and salmon, he recommends fishing the bait or lure just under the surface. If no bite, lower the bait or lure a few feet. Try that depth for awhile. If the fish still are not biting, continue lowering the bait or lure a few feet at a time. If using the right bait or lure, and still not catching fish, know that trout and salmon are not using that part of the lake at that time.

Bluegill, Largemouth Bass and Smallmouth Bass – Near brush, bulrushes, rocks and weeds. Look for vegetation that is sticking up through the ice or ridges that extend down into the water. To find the depth where the fish are, start by dropping bait or a lure all the way to the bottom of the water. Then raise the bait or lure six to 12 inches at a time until the fish are found.

Burbot, Salleye, Tiger Muskie and Northern Pike – Near the bottom of the water. Each of these fish likes to pick baits or lures up, swim a ways with them, and then eat what they have picked up. Fishing with the bail on the reel open, or using a device called a tip up, are good ways to let the fish run with the bait or lure before setting the hook.

If anglers are not sure which depth to try, ask others who are catching fish nearby. “Most anglers are very willing to tell share the depth at which they are catching fish,” Cushing says.

He also reminds anglers that fish are not everywhere in a lake. After drilling a hole and fishing for 30 minutes without a bite, move to a new spot. “Once you find a spot that has fish, keep coming back,” he advised. “More often than not, an ice fishing hotspot will stay hot throughout the winter.”

Not only do fish move less under the ice, they also bite less aggressively. That can make it challenging to know when a fish is striking a bait or lure. “Don’t rely on a fishing rod to determine when a fish is on the end of the line,” Cushing cautioned. “Anglers might not know when to set the hook.”

Fortunately, inexpensive items such as ice bobbers are available. Simply measure the amount of line that will put the bait or lure at the depth desired. Then attach the bobber at that point on the line. The bobber will sit on top of the water with the line dangling under it. “When the bobber moves, it is time to raise the fishing rod and set the hook,” Cushing stated.

An item that will cost about $15, but that’s effective and fun to use, is called a tip up. A tip up is a device that takes the place of a fishing rod. When a fish takes the bait, a mechanism on the tip up sends a small flag up, letting the angler know a fish is on the end of the line.

“Using a tip up makes it easier to fish in two holes,” Cushing says. “Drill two holes a ways apart and it’s still possible to know when a fish is biting the line in either hole.”

Remember that in addition to a fishing license, anglers must have a two-pole permit to fish with two poles or two tip ups. Also, poles or tip ups cannot be more than 100 feet apart and each pole or tip up must be in clear sight.

More ice fishing basics are available in six videos produced by DWR.  Tthe videos can be seen at www.youtube.com/UDWR.

Also, stay updated on where fishing is best in Utah this winter at www.wildlife.utah.gov/hotspots.

Two additional websites, www.bigfishtackle.com and www.utahwildlife.net also provide updated information.

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